LET THIS BE my official apology for every recipe I’ve written with “salt to taste” as the only guidance.
Not long ago, I was asked to test a vegetarian stew for six portions using only “salt to taste.” Ultimately, I added a heaping 11/2 teaspoons of kosher salt to the dish, with delicious results. But, erring on the side of caution — too much salt is incredibly difficult to mend — meant it took many minutes of sprinkling, tasting and frowning at blandness before I grabbed a measuring spoon and salted with relative abandon. If I’d been more confident to begin with, or if there had been a guideline in the book offering ground rules for salt, the cooking would have been more enjoyable, and a little quicker.
Part of the problem lies in the whole idea of salt measurements: What’s the difference between a pinch and a dash? I assumed a dash was one or two shakes from a shaker, which measures out to almost nothing, perhaps 1/64th of a teaspoon. The actual standard (developed by measuring spoon manufacturers and adopted by culinary reference books) is that a dash is 1/8th of a teaspoon.
Here’s where things go off the rails: A pinch of salt is supposed to be half of a dash, or 1/16 teaspoon. Silly me — and perhaps silly you? — for assuming a pinch was a literal measurement: what could be pinched out of a jar. I asked a couple dozen people, food professionals and home cooks alike, to measure their pinch, and the size ranged from six times a dash (3/4 teaspoon) down to the proper half-dash.
It depends on the size of your salt cellar; whether you are more of a baker or a savory cook; and whether you use your thumb and pointer finger, or thumb and two fingers, to collect that pinch. Professional kitchen experience generally lined up with larger pinches, but there were exceptions. The largest pinch was cookbook author and recipe developer Jackie Freeman; Beach Bakery owner Amy McConnell’s pinch was the only one right on the money with that properly dainty 1/16. Mine came in with the majority, right around 1/8 teaspoon, a mere twice the size it’s supposed to be.
Because Freeman doesn’t have massive hands capable of monster-truck-size pinches, I asked a stack of questions about her style and technique. She keeps salt in a wide 4-ounce Mason jar and uses a three-fingered chef’s pinch. More important, perhaps, is that she cooks for six these days.
“When I cook for one, my pinch is more like 1/4 teaspoon,” she says. “If I see ‘pinch’ in a recipe for four to six, I mentally scale that up to two or three big chef pinch-scoop-grabs from my jar.” In other words, she has the salting confidence I lack.
Cookbooks typically emphasize their preferred type of salt, with table, kosher and sea salt the standards. Table salt has small, regular grains, while kosher is large and flaky; the latter stands out to our taste buds and clings more easily to cooked food. Sea salt can be many things, from delicate fleur de sel to coarse and crunchy. According to major salt brands like Morton’s, the volume differences between the three aren’t large enough to matter, unless your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon or more of salt.
To save yourself time and stress, the next time you encounter “to taste” as the only salt measurement in a recipe, start with 1/4 teaspoon, or two average-size, two-fingered pinches, for every serving in the recipe. The goal isn’t to make food taste noticeably salty, only to make it taste noticeably of itself. Salt, more than any other ingredient, will make a dish into more than the sum of its parts.